The Trip We Wouldn’t Have Taken

Nell has friends, Tom and Marcy, who live up in Sonoma Valley, north of San Francisco. We visited them when Rudy was too small to walk and had a great time. Rudy and I stopped by again when Rudy was around three to go to a wedding in neighboring Napa Valley. We’ve been saying ever since that we should go back. “We should go up to see Marcy in the spring…” would turn to “We should go up to see Marcy in the fall…” and around again to the spring. It’s a long drive (over six hours), but seems too short to use a commercial flight for. (We’d fly from LAX to Oakland and the truth is that between parking, getting through security, renting a car on the other end… we probably would be close to the driving time anyway. It’s an hour and a half in a Southwest 737 and Oakland is still nearly a two hour drive from Sonoma.)

On the way down from my very long flight to Friday Harbor, WA, I stopped at the Napa Valley airport to re-fuel. So, after that, I had a very good measurement of the flight time home. We had a very clear weekend in regards to weather, so we asked Marcy if they were going to be around. She was busy Saturday night at a dinner, and Tom was out of town, but she and her daughter RR would love to see us. We launched Saturday morning at 9:15am.

I made the flight considerably more comfortable for the boys by getting some sun shades at an automotive supply store. They start as little discs, but pop open into nice large rectangles and suction-cup attach to the canopy windows. I also put two more in the back for them that were of a more opaque variety and had miniature roller shades. Instead of the sun streaming through the windows and heating them up like little hothouse flowers, they were reading in relative comfort, decorated by meshed shadows.

Nell was re-writing her episode of NCIS, the television program she’s working on. We had a couple shades stuck to the canopy up in the front and Nell was able to work almost the entire way. The flight was two hours twenty minutes, flying up over Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, Hollister, San Jose and Livermore. San Francisco’s Class B airspace is missing the nice VFR corridors that LAX and San Diego have worked out. So we skirted it, descending under the lip of the outer ring and seeing a lot of Airbus 320s and Boeing 737s on the traffic scope and out the window.

Nell and I continued to check the weather with the XM weather built into the G1000 system. It shows a map and little flags on each reporting airport, telling you if the airport is VFR, MVFR, IFR or LIFR. The Bay area is tricky because there’s fog that rolls in and out without decent forecasting for when it happens. The entire coast was VFR except for APC, the Napa Valley airport. (Our airport was very close to APC, and too small to have its own weather reporting.) From Hollister north we just kept watching the weather map. Updates are nearly constant and a change in the fog condition at APC would warrant a special observation (otherwise airport weather is reported every fifty minutes). When we crossed the south edge of the Bay area it was still IFR at APC, but as we started our descent it went MVFR and then VFR. We slipped in.

Around Livermore we were dropping through four thousand feet and there were a lot of smaller traffic targets. We were headed toward Schellville Field, a tiny airport near the town of Sonoma itself (most of the controllers we talked to had to confirm the destination, since it is so uncommon). It was very difficult to find the field. It was a CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) airport, one without a control tower. As I approached from the south I kept updating the frequency with our position. When we were nearly over the airport I saw it and turned to enter the downwind for the preferred runway. We established a descent on final over a marsh, or shallow bay, and although I bounced a little bit we were going nice and slow (it was a short runway) and we stayed right on the center line (it was not much wider than our wingspan).

I popped the canopy into the taxi position (it was very hot and humid now that we were on the ground) and we taxied slowly down a cracked taxiway. I pivoted us onto a grass parking area and stopped us short. Marcy and RR had been waiting for us and saw us land. They came over as we were unloading and checked out the plane a little before helping us cover it. In ten minutes we were driving to lunch.

It was a great day in Sonoma. Swimming for me and the boys while Nell and Marcy caught up. A nice evening watching the sun set over the hills separating the Napa and Sonoma valleys. As I walked up from where we would be spending the night to the main house I strolled within twenty feet of a coyote. We both stopped and stared into one another’s eyes. He was unimpressed and wandered off into the vineyard. I fell asleep listening to the wind through the vines and rustle of the dry grasses.

After a lazy morning with blueberry pancakes, the boys and I lay about reading (Nell and Marcy went for a walk to the corners of the vineyard). We packed up and visited a nearby home under construction (architects love that sort of thing). A late lunch on the way to the airport made the boys a little glassy-eyed. We pulled into the airport and left them in the minivan watching a DVD in the air conditioning while I stowed the cover, fueled the plane and did my pre-flight inspection. It was a muggy ninety-five degrees and I did a rolling run-up as I headed toward the runway. We waved to Marcy and RR and I fire-walled the throttle. We zoomed halfway down the runway and popped up into the air.

Neglecting to tell Nell it was the plan (oops), I steered us out over San Francisco Bay. We stayed low, under fifteen hundred feet most of the time, and flew over the Marin headlands, a few hundred feet away from the Golden Gate Bridge (where there was still fog rolling in from the ocean side, but it no longer engulfed the bridge), and on past Alcatraz Island. It was a wonderful view of downtown and a great way to see the Exploratorium, Fisherman’s Wharf and a bunch of the other places the boys have been on our visits to SF. Although they dutifully looked out a couple times, the boys mostly wanted to concentrate on their books.

(For the two hours up and two hours back down they played some Gameboy, did some needlepoint, and read a lot of their books.)

The trip back was as uneventful as the trip up. As soon as we were at cruising altitude over San Jose, the G1000 told us that we would land in Santa Monica at 6:20pm. We talked with the boys a little bit about dinner and Rudy put in a strong vote for Nawab, a great Indian restaurant near us. Secure in the knowledge that he knew exactly where his next meal was coming from, Rudy promptly fell asleep.

It was very nice to hear the Santa Monica controller’s voice as we flew in over the Palisades. We had a bizjet on a two mile final behind us as we turned from base, so I told the controller that I planned minimal time on the runway and would be parking at the northeast tie downs. He said, “That’s all good.” Stabilized at seventy-five knots on short final, it was a precision landing where I JUST dragged the wheels onto the pavement. Nell said, “That was your best landing ever.” Dexter piped up with, “Yeah, I’ll say. No bounces this time.”

An instrument rating would allow more of these sort of trips, and keep them more relaxed. We had almost NO worries about weather in either direction, but there was still a little concern (at least for me). We didn’t want to have to land somewhere else and have to drive, at either end of the trip.

All in all, though, it was a perfect family flying trip, especially since it was a trip we wouldn’t have done otherwise. We’re already scheduled to go back up in October.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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